Like most gardeners, I'm always ready to adopt plants that have multiple uses. Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) definitely fits this description, because it's a productive culinary herb that doubles as a showy perennial by covering itself with spikes of blue blossoms. Plus, if your living spaces are in need of purification, you can bind a few sage stems together with string, dry them, and use them as smudge sticks, a Native American tradition in which the smoke from smouldering sage is used to clear negative energies.
Garden sage does have one shortcoming, which is a low tolerance for very cold weather. While gardeners in mild winter climates can grow sage as a long-lived perennial, where winter temperatures often drop below 0°F (-18°C), it is best handled as an annual. Variegated pineapple sage is even less cold hardy, but it's a great edible ornamental to tuck into containers or high visibility beds. In my climate, I lose my culinary sages to winter every few years, which is a great excuse to start over with new plants.
I suppose I could cook my way through summer without sage, but who wants to do that? The smoky-spicy flavour of garden sage pairs perfectly with poultry, potatoes, pasta and a long list of other dishes. When you need a crispy garnish, a few whole sage leaves pan-fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt will do the trick. For winter use, I dry individual sage leaves and store them in glass jars in a cool cabinet.
Growing Sage for Flowers
In addition to garden sage, I love to grow scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea) because it is so popular with hummingbirds and butterflies. Sometimes called Texas sage, this easy-to-grow annual comes in quieter coral colours if you can't handle red, but you will see more hummingbirds with bold 'Summer Jewel Red', winner of both All America Selections and Fleuroselect awards. I start Salvia coccinea seeds indoors in mid-spring on the same schedule as tomatoes, and the stocky, fast-growing plants start blooming by midsummer. The following year, I look for self-sown scarlet sage seedlings among the weeds, and usually find a few to dig and move to wherever I want them to grow.
Garden salvias (Salvia elegans) are sometimes called scarlet sage, too, though they now come in a wide range of colours and bicolours. Although annual salvias look great when given plenty of warmth, water and fertiliser, they offer scant nectar to butterflies, while at the same time attracting hordes of whiteflies. The other sages on my recommended list do not have this problem.
Getting Clear on Clary Sage
Another annual sage worth growing is painted sage (Salvia viridisSalvia horminum and often is still labeled as such. Also called annual clary sage, this fast and easy annual produces colourful bracts at each stem tip that are showy in the garden, in cut flower arrangements, and they work well as dried flowers, too. Varieties such as 'Claryssa Mixed' include plants with blue, pink and white bracts, or you can choose all blue with the 'Blue Monday' variety.
Note that true clary sage, Salvia sclarea, is classified as a noxious weed in Washington State because of its tendency to shed seed with wild abandon. A biennial or short-lived perennial, true clary sage plants produce a crown of coarse leaves in spring, followed by spikes of pale lilac flowers packed with spicy fragrance. As is the case with coriander, some people love to sniff clary sage while the smell makes others want to gag. It is not on my must-have list.
Plants should solve problems rather than create them, which brings us back to using sage in a purification ritual. Why not? Most of us live ritual-deprived lives. But rather than setting off your fire alarm with a burning smudge stick, simply crush a few sage leaves and hold them in front of you, in cupped hands. Slowly and mindfully, turn in a clockwise direction while saying this prayer:
"Darkness flee, blessed be, keep peace always within."
It can't hurt!
By Barbara Pleasant